Talking With Your Children About a Past Abortion
By Amy Sobie
The Post-Abortion Review (Vol. 12(1), Jan.-March 2004)
Copyright from the Elliot Institute, www.AfterAbortion.org
Reprinted with permission
Theresa Bonopartis vividly remembers the day, more than 20 years ago, that she phoned her doctor for the results of her pregnancy test. She was 18, unmarried, and scared. The doctor's words confirmed what, despite months of denial, she already knew she was almost four months pregnant.
She and her boyfriend decided to marry. But then her parents kicked her out, telling her to forget she was their daughter. She and her boyfriend broke up. Her father urged her to have an abortion, which she initially resisted. But without a job, housing, or any support, she felt she had no choice but to give in.
For years, she tried to forget about the second-trimester abortion—a grueling experience involving 12 hours of labor and seeing the body of her unborn child. After marriage to an abusive husband, the birth of two sons, a divorce, and semi-reconciliation with her parents, she went back to school to earn a counseling degree. But within a year of starting her first job, she was burnt out, struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Although she had returned to the Catholic faith in which she'd been raised, she didn't believe God could forgive her for what she had done. Finally, feeling she had nowhere else to turn, she sought counseling from her parish priest. For the first time in ten years, she began to feel a sense of peace and healing. But one question still nagged her should she tell her two sons about her abortion?
"I felt that God was calling me to speak about abortion, but I knew I couldn't unless my children knew first," she said. "I was concerned about how it was going to effect them and I thought they would never forgive me. I was terrified they would hate me."
To Tell or Not to Tell?
Abortion is often a deeply guarded secret, surrounded by silence and shame. Even parents who may feel comfortable sharing their story with other adults may hesitate when it comes to telling their children. They may worry about fracturing their relationship with their children; especially young children who tend to see Mom and Dad in nurturing and protecting roles. Many parents fear that even their adult children will react to news of a past abortion with condemnation and disgust.
The parents' questions and concerns are many: "What if my children hate me? What if they don't forgive me? Will my children still believe I love them and would never hurt them? When is the right time to tell them, and how much do I share with them? Should I even be telling them about this part of my life at all?"
Some experts, like Dr. Philip Ney, a psychiatrist who has done extensive work with abortion survivors and siblings of aborted through Hope Alive ministries in Vancouver, Canada, say that children need to know about the parent's abortion because of the effect the abortion can have on the family.
"In some respects, the decision to talk or not talk about your pregnancy loss, particularly an abortion, is academic," Ney said. "There are very few real secrets within the family. The facts seem to indicate that the loss that has affected you will be communicated in one way or another, and children guess at what happened. You cannot not communicate. You will show that something has changed you, especially something as disturbing as an abortion."
Ney said that children often sense that there are "pseudo-secrets" within the family, and even very young children may be aware that their mother was pregnant but a baby never arrived. This may cause young children to question their own security and lead to a sense of mistrust and lack of communication with the parents. Some children may become withdrawn, angry, and uncommunicative if the issue of the abortion is not addressed.
"Parents need to remember that the pain of an abortion is never private, so resolving the pain and conflict cannot be private," said Ney. "It is better that the issue be dealt with as carefully and clearly as possible. It may take time to help your children work through the conflicts, but it is vitally important that you do so. The outcome will be much better than you might expect during the period of turmoil."
Kevin Burke, who holds a master's degree in social work and runs Rachel's Vineyard post-abortion ministries with his wife, therapist Theresa Burke, suggested that parents talk to a trusted counselor or therapist before making the decision to divulge news of an abortion to their children. He said that parents need to think carefully about how, what, and when they should tell their children.
"The burden must fall on us as parents to justify the benefits to the child in telling them this information," he said. He suggests that before parents talk to their children, they ask themselves the following questions:
How will this benefit my children?
How will this affect their development now and in the future?
How will this contribute to or interfere with their own emotional maturation and development?
How will this contribute to or interfere with their relationship with me and my role as a parent?
What is the benefit to telling them now rather than waiting until they are a young adult or adult and can more easily integrate the information into their adult minds and understand the issue and the parents' experience?
Dr. Theresa Burke agrees that parents need to carefully weigh the possible benefits and harms to their children before telling them. She is concerned that some parents may feel driven to tell their children from a "desire to 'vicariously' reconcile with one's aborted child." For this reason, she said, parents need to develop a relationship with their aborted child before they consider telling their living children about the abortion.
Bonopartis said she tried several times to speak with her sons, but each time she held back, unable to utter the words. Finally, when they were in their early teens, she felt she was being "given the grace" to tell them.
"I never overcame the fears," she said. "I think I just moved forward in spite of them, placing my trust in God because I knew He was asking me to tell them, and I trusted Him because of my own healing. I told them the basics . . . I did not go into details of the abortion. They cried, and as is often the case, they went through very different responses. One was very angry and the other wanted to protect me."
Why Some Parents Choose to Tell
Parents cite a number of reasons for choosing to talk with their children about a past abortion. These include:
(1) If the abortion is publicly known because the mother and/or father have shared their testimony in public settings, or feel called to begin speaking out about their experience; or if there is another reason to believe that the child may find out about the abortion from another source.
"No one has the right to know about an abortion before family members," said Bonopartis, who waited to speak publicly about her abortion until her two sons felt comfortable with her doing so. "I believe family members have a right to their time of grief and working it out. They also have a right to give their input including the children as to whether they are comfortable having the post-abortive person speak publicly about their experience."
(2) If the parents suspect that their children are aware or have guessed that an abortion took place in the family (for example, if the children were born before the abortion and may have guessed that the mother was pregnant).
Cecilia Brown, who had an abortion at 18, had planned to tell her daughter about her abortion herself someday. Instead, she was dismayed to learn that someone who was angry at Cecilia had already told her daughter. "When my daughter found out I don't know, but I do know that she dwelled on it for a while," Brown said. "Then she got mad at me one day and started to blurt out angry words. I waited until she calmed down and then talked to her about it. She was more angry at the fact that I had not been the one to tell her."
(3) If the abortion has resulted in serious consequences for the parents such as severe depression, substance abuse, divorce, or violence in the home that have impacted the children and the parents' relationship with them, and the parents feel that telling the children will be a step toward healing the wounds within the family.
"I believe that many children are living in situations that are a direct result of the mother's abortion single family homes, abusive families, etc.," Bonopartis said. "The children may feel that they are to blame for the emotional struggles of their parents. I know my sons felt that so much of their lives made sense once they knew about the abortion. Explaining how the abortion affected me cleared up the picture for them, and no matter how painful, I think it helped them."
The Importance of Discernment
Theresa Burke emphasized that parents should consider their child's level of maturity and ability to handle the situation. "Only a parent is qualified to discern whether or not their child has the emotional stability to deal with this kind of information," she said. "The decision to tell or not to tell is highly individual, personal, and should be considered only after deep discernment and prayer. No one knows your child better than you."
Some children simply may not be at an age where they can keep discussion of the abortion within the family. "One child I knew was nicknamed 'The Times Herald,' because she was such a blabber mouth," Burke said. "Such a child could be tempted to broadcast this personal information to teachers, babysitters, and neighborhood friends."
Valeska Littlefield, who often speaks publicly about the abortion she had as a teen, said her nine-year-old daughter sometimes asked questions about her abortion at inopportune moments. "I would simply tell her that now was not the time to talk about it," Littlefield said. "Parents need to be prepared that this might happen, especially with younger children."
Lisa DiFillipo, who had an abortion 11 years ago, said her family knows about her abortion and she is fine when her young daughter brings it up with relatives, "because this fact will always be a part of my life and I'm not trying to hide from it anymore." Parents who are concerned about privacy, however, should keep this in mind before talking about the abortion with a very young or talkative child.
One mother, who asked not to be named, said that she has decided not to tell her young children about her abortion, at least for now. "I could never disappoint my children by letting them know that I went against everything I have taught them," she said. "If my daughter is ever in a position to need my input she's eight now I may have to release this information to her. But I really hope to be able to lead her in the right direction without having to share this information with her or anyone."
The Importance of Healing
Another important thing for parents to consider is how much healing they themselves have experienced, said Trudy Johnson, who went through an abortion and now works at Focus on the Family's Crisis Pregnancy Ministry. "I have counseled women who have just 'come out of the closet,' who are barely out of denial themselves and think they need to immediately tell their other children," said Johnson, who holds a master's degree in counseling. "In these cases I always tell them no . . . If you are not really healed, I believe the news can come across as 'dumping' on them or being condemning. The whole 'telling' process shouldn't be a matter of dumping your grief or guilt, but rather, sharing your heart tenderly for truth's sake."
Johnson said that while telling one's child can be a step in the healing process, she doesn't recommend it unless the parent has gone through a post-abortion counseling class and worked through the pain.
Philip Ney and Theresa Burke both agree that unless telling a child right away is absolutely necessary (such as when the child has already guessed or discovered that an abortion took place), parents need to resolve their own conflicts and mourn the loss of the aborted child first. Otherwise, they will not be prepared to deal with the children's reactions in a healthy manner, and may communicate their own fears and unresolved issues to them.
"No one should ever tell their children about their abortion until they have experienced an intense healing process themselves," Burke said. "The most important thing children need to know is that they are loved and that the parent is stable. If a grieving parent went to a child with an abortion confession, it could be very threatening to the child if the parent has not been through a healing process themselves."
Many parents also say that the timing of an abortion confession is important. They say parents shouldn't "rush" the process, but carefully consider how and when to talk to their children, as well as how the children might be impacted by such news. "I've run across many women who end up telling their daughters when they are facing the same experience of an unexpected pregnancy," Littlefield said. "Often the daughter will think that if mom did it and she is okay, then I need to do it too, or it is okay for me. I've seen other cases where there is a deathbed confession of abortion, which leaves the family with the aftermath and nowhere to turn to have their questions answered."
Bonopartis said that she has known of cases where women speak engage in public speaking about their abortions without telling their families or tell their families simply because they want to engage in public speaking. "I think this can be a selfish motive a way they are looking to 'make up' for their abortion or ease their own guilt," she said. "This is a great injustice. Women also have to be prepared to allow their children to feel whatever they need to feel and to work through it, allowing the children to express themselves with no fear that they themselves will then be 'unwanted.' In this way, the children can feel that no matter what they say, they are safe and loved."
Sharing the Past
Lisa DiFillipo, who had an abortion 11 years ago, said she chose to tell her daughter at a young age because of her involvement in post-abortion ministries. "When my daughter was about six years old and I was speaking regularly about my abortion, I really felt that I needed to tell her," she said. "Many think that is way too young, but I didn't want to hear about it from someone other than myself." DiFillipo's daughter is now eight, and her mother said she seems "to feel very comfortable" with the abortion issue. "I tried to give her as much information as she wanted and then that was it until the next time," she said. "She would think about it and let it sink in and then come back to me with other questions. I was always honest with her without giving her more than I felt like she could handle. "I am happy and comfortable with the way I have done this. I plan to do my best to keep these lines of communication open so this never becomes a stumbling block for her."
Sometimes children have already guessed or sensed that there was an abortion in the family, perhaps after having overheard a conversation or guessing that the mother was pregnant without a baby appearing. When Janet Hurguy told her teenage daughter about her abortion, her daughter responded by saying that she had often thought that there had been another child in the family. "She did not understand why she would think this but for some reason she did," she said. Another woman, Shelia, said she felt at first that telling her children about her abortion "put distance between us," but she knew that her children needed time to work through the grieving process. "At first it was very painful, but today I have absolutely no regrets about telling them," she said. "I knew that the truth needed to be spoken; that I wanted them to understand what hell these abortions had caused me and to know the truth about what abortion does to a woman. I wanted to share about the redeeming love and mercy of God."
Christine, who has told her teenage children about her abortion, acknowledges that while telling her children about the abortion had painful consequences, she is glad she took that step. "My children are coping with the knowledge of what I did, yet not without a struggle," she said. "They sometimes asked me questions, which I answered to the best of my ability. But my second child still sometimes avoids the subject, looking away from me . . . My children and I still need more restoration. But at least a very important step has been made. An openness has been created and I'm very grateful to no longer have this terrible secret from my children."
Other women, like Trudy Johnson, have chosen to wait until their children were adults before telling them of a past abortion. Johnson shared her story of telling her two grown sons in an article she wrote for Focus Magazine last January. Although she struggled with fears about telling them, she wrote, the letter she received from one of her sons in response was "probably the most loving thing he has ever done for me."
"Dear Mom," her son wrote. "Thank you for being honest about this terrible thing. I know it must have been hard for you to share it with me, but honest, Mom, I hope you don't think I would hate you. I feel so sad for our family. When I read your words, it was like all the puzzle pieces of my life fell into place. I always felt our family had a 'missing piece'. Our home had an emptiness, an inexplicable sadness. Now I know why."
Valeska Littlefield feels is it important to give children an opportunity to grieve the loss of a sibling and make some tangible connection to the aborted child. She and her husband are planning to honor the memory of Littlefield's child with a marker at the National Memorial for the Unborn in Chattanooga, TN, which has a "Wall of Remembrance" where grieving parents and family members can honor children lost to abortion. They have decided to let their oldest daughter choose the inscription for the marker. "I've had the opportunity to grieve; this is her opportunity to make that connection," Littlefield explained. "If I would have had a child who died after birth, I would have had photographs, something to allow our children to make a connection with her, but she doesn't have that. This will give her that connection."
Many parents say that prayer both before and after talking with your children, if you choose to tell them is key. "God will lead you to knowing the right time and giving you the right opportunity," Hurguy said. Christine agreed. "I would strongly recommend that those mothers who need to tell their children make sure to be surrounded by prayer, and also, if they are very much afraid to tell, that they would ask a very skillful person to be around so they can talk about how things went as soon as they can."
Theresa Burke said that if a parent chooses to disclose an abortion, "it should be done within the framework of the Lord's forgiveness and mercy that even though something awful has happened, God has forgiven the person, and forgives all of us if we are sorry about what we did."
Cecilia Brown said parents should tell their children that they can always come to you if they are facing an unplanned pregnancy. "I told my daughter that if she became pregnant she could come to me; that I do understand I have been there," she said.
Bonopartis believes that in the end, telling her sons about her past abortion ten years ago has been healing for her family. "I know it was very painful for them, and although they support my work I know at times they still do not want to read things I have written or look at it too closely," she said. "Sometimes I still feel concern, but not very often. I am very proud of them. They can get sad, but I believe their reactions are healthy. It has also made them more effective in their own lives in speaking about abortion. They understand the impact. They have lived it.
"I think in the end it brought us closer together. It took time, and a lot of talking, but we worked through it. So much of their lives now makes sense to them. They understood finally why things were the way they were, and why I spent years crying."
Bonopartis recently received an award for her work in post-abortion ministries. She said that she was nervous about her son attending the banquet with her because it was the first the time that he was to hear her share her abortion story in public. "From what I heard, my son was the first one on his feet clapping after I spoke," she said. "To know my son was giving me a standing ovation after I had gotten up in front of 300 people with him in the room and I had spoken about my own abortion and work how can you beat that?"
* * *
Comments from Dr. Philip Ney are excerpted from the booklet "How to Talk With Your Children About Your Abortion: A Practical Guide for Parents," by Philip G. Ney and Marie Peeters-Ney.
For more information, contact IIPLCARR/Hope Alive by phone at (250) 391-1840, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Tips for Talking With Your Children About a Past Abortion
1) Make sure you have worked through the grief process first. Parents need to be far enough along in their own healing to be able to cope with their children's emotional reactions.
2) Pray and discern the Holy Spirit's leading before deciding whether to talk with your children about a past abortion. Seek the advice of a trusted counselor, minister, or priest.
3) Think about your motives for telling your children. Go through the above list of questions suggested by Kevin Burke. Parents need to make sure they are acting in the best interests of their children rather than seeking to resolve issues in their own lives.
4) Think about your children's level of maturity and ability to handle such information. Are they experiencing personal or family conflicts that might be worsened by learning about the abortion now? Are they emotionally mature enough to handle such information, or would it be better to wait until they are older before telling them? If you choose to tell:
5) Be age-appropriate in discussing past abortions with your children. Teens or young adults may be able to handle details that would not be appropriate to share with young children.
6) Reassure your children that you will always love and accept them no matter what, not only through words but through your willingness to listen and spend time with them. Make sure teens and older children know they can always come to you for help if they are experiencing a similar crisis.
7) Have outside support in place—a trusted counselor or pastor, knowledgeable family friend, etc. who can help the children process this information and serve as an additional means of support. Children may hesitate to share some things with their parents if they perceive the parents are still hurting from the abortion experience.
8) Respect your children's right to grieve, and assure them that they are free to express their feelings and take the time to work through them. Parents should try not to place a burden of "needing to forgive" on their children or insist that they move on from the situation before they are ready.
9) Answer questions honestly and openly, giving your children as much information as they seem able to handle. Parents should never force children to hear information they don't want to hear. Children will usually stop asking questions when they have received as much information as they can cope with at the moment. Parents also need to let the children know that they can come back to discuss information later, but be prepared to monitor your children's reactions and address issues as they arise.
10) Stress that this is a "family issue" only, and not one to discuss with others outside the family especially with young children who may be tempted to broadcast such news or ask questions at inappropriate moments.
11) When the children are ready, find a way that you as a family can acknowledge and memorialize the child lost to abortion. This might include a healing service or Mass for the family, visiting or placing a marker at a memorial for unborn children, planting a tree, etc.
Telling Others - Compiled by
Telling Your Children About a Past Abortion - Linda Cochrane